A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory

In analysing the place of transgender and transsexual people in the theorising of various disciplines one finds several common threads that link together the entire enterprise. Society can often be quite messy and yet paradoxically can also be found to have identifiable mechanisms of operation that grind certain social forces inexorably forward. So what am I getting at with this? What are the common threads? Well, with the invaluable assistance of an expert social theorist who happens to be a trans woman, I believe I have found four.

Trans people are not the only group of people hard done by social and political theory; there is a lot to be learned from analysing how theoretical paradigms have utterly excluded other marginalised peoples. In her 2007 book Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell articulates an excellent exegesis of Western social theory that lays bare its deeply Eurocentric assumptions as well as the colonial enterprise that underlay it. The colonised world, she says, was merely a data mine whose raw numbers would be exported back to ‘the metropole’ (Europe and America) for theoretical production that would then come together as a definitive vision of the colonised. In this way the relationship between coloniser and colonised is no different when regarding the academic realm as opposed to, say, the political or industrial ones.

The links to how academics conceptualise and (more importantly) use trans people are quite clear here. Metaphors of colonisation are quite useful for discussing vastly unequal social dynamics within Western countries as well; histories of appropriation and exploitation are certainly not limited to the majority world and ‘data mines’ can be found just down the street from where I’m sitting as surely as they can in Ghana or Pakistan or Aboriginal Australia. What’s more the trouble with such theory is not just that they appropriate, misuse, and distort the experiences of the colonised, but that in other instances (particularly in the weaving of generic theories of society) they are ignored altogether. Connell has identified four movements of colonialist academia that she says characterise most attempts to theorise about society: the claim of universality, reading from the centre, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. I will go through each in turn and discuss their relevance to gender theory and trans folk specifically.

In her pathbreaking paper The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto [1991], trans woman cyborg-feminist theorist Sandy Stone articulates in brief summary an idea that structures both this article and a lot of my thinking in general about trans people’s relationship to medico-juridical establishments and the academy:

I wish to point out the broad similarities which this peculiar juxtaposition suggests to aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitation. …

Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practises within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorising are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorising about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency.

This all makes itself manifest in the fascination some theorists have with us, fetishising the exotic trans people they see in their mind’s eye as either innately radical or conservative, denying that trans people’s individual self-understandings are meaningful (unless they comport with a dominant cis narrative), and a belief that the ideas expressed either in patriarchally-controlled medicine, psychiatry, or the academy can somehow save us. Thrumming beneath it all as a foundational gloss is the idea that we can neither speak nor act for ourselves, that we could never be adequate producers of knowledge about our own lives.

This is accomplished in the following ways:

The Claim of Universality

Its meaning may well be readily intelligible, to be sure. Raewyn Connell says of this particular trope:

In each of the texts just discussed, there is a strong and repeated claim to universal relevance. To these authors, and to many others, the very idea of theory involves talking in universals. It is assumed that all societies are knowable, and they are knowable in the same way and from the same point of view.

With regard to feminist theory this works in the following way. It starts with the tendency to universalise gender as a whole along the male-female dyad: thus all women are kin to one another, as are all men, and each group has identical interests and identical bodies. Just as metropolitan theory about social systems more generally is exclusive by default of all those who do not fit that paradigm, so too is this particular type of theory exclusive to all people whose genders cannot be so categorised.

Consider the following quote from feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies:

There will always remain a kind of outsideness or alienness of the experiences and lived reality of each sex for the other. Men, contrary to the fantasy of the transsexual, can never, even with surgical intervention, feel or experience what it is like to be, to live, as women. At best the transsexual can live out his fantasy of femininity- a fantasy that in itself is usually disappointed with the rather crude transformations effected by surgical and chemical intervention. The transsexual may look like a woman but can never feel like or be a woman.

Thus we have here a theoretical statement that presupposes universality to three concepts: woman, man, and transsexual. The problems become readily apparent. For one, this triptych is of Grosz’s own design. It should surprise no one that she is a cis woman. Thus “the transsexual” becomes a kind of third gender, which is itself something that completely disregards the lived and embodied reality of trans men and trans women. Trans men are quite interesting to consider here, because Grosz speaks only of people that most readers will understand to be transsexual women. Yet she speaks in the universalising term “the transsexual” as if such trans people are all that can subsumed beneath that concept.

Then, of course, she must make an assumption about the existential being of manhood and womanhood. There is, she implies, a powerfully universal experience inhering to the ontology of woman. To be woman, she argues, means something that those she genders as men cannot know. The problem is that her definition of that universal experience ignores her own subject position- the kind of woman she is shapes what womanhood is for her, for one. Would her existential woman be the same kind of woman in New York as she would be in Dubai or Jakarta? On a Hopi Reservation as in the South Bronx? In a French banlieue as in Stockholm? The answer is no, naturally. The same applies for me. And if that is true, then the entire enterprise breaks down, as does the basis for claiming firmly that “the transsexual” is or can’t be x, y, and z.

To give a countervailing view on the matter, we can turn to feminist theorist Linda Nicholson who had this to say about the presumption of universal gender:

I want to suggest that we think of the meaning of woman in the same way that Wittgenstein suggested we think about the meaning of game, as a word whose meaning is not found through the elucidation of some specific characteristic but is found through the elaboration of a complex network of characteristics. […] It also allows for the fact that the word may be used in contexts where such [biological] characteristics are not present, for example, in English-speaking countries prior to the adoption of the concept of vagina, or in contemporary English-speaking societies to refer to those who do not have vaginas but still feel themselves to be women, that is, to transsexuals before a medical operation.

To be quite sure, her definition of “transsexual” here could use some finessing, but her ultimate argument was that trans women were women and any workable definition of “woman” had to include groups that universalising theory excluded by default.

Reading From the Centre

This one is more complex. Connell’s argument here is that Western (or Northern, as she refers to them in this text) theorists spend a good deal of effort resolving or positioning themselves in the middle of dichotomies that we have created which have little to no relevance to non-Western or Southern peoples. This comes from theorists addressing problems that arise only in the literature of their own people, thus perpetuating misconceptions and irrelevant paradigms.

In the case of trans people, we find cis people’s paradigms and antinomies of gender foisted upon us, and thus made startlingly relevant in our lives. We have often been pawns in discussions of nature versus nurture, one of the bigger antinomies where we are made to have some relevance. One need only look at the infamous John Money John/Joan experiment wherein he took a boy whose penis was ablated through a surgical accident and told his parents to raise him as a girl. The experiment, despite its enormous methodological and above all ethical flaws, was to resolve the much ballyhooed nature vs. nurture debate- a timeless antinomy in social and natural science. Its tragic failure has become quite well known, and it has been seized on by many people (including trans people themselves) to prove this or that theory.

Beyond this we can find ourselves in theories about how nurture predominates (see: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler) and others claiming, either in trying to support us or oppose us, that we demonstrate (or that we are attempting to prove) that sex is inborn and innate. Many feminist critics scorn us for the latter and say that we reify the gender order by claiming that we are objectively born either male or female, just in an inappropriate vessel. It has already been discussed at length here why this is a problematic idea, and it represents how theories created by cis people are projected back onto us as a truth of our existence that we ourselves supposedly advocate.

Inasmuch as dichotomies of male and female or nature and nurture are made problems of trans existence it is because we are often conscripted into these debates as Exhibit A of one side or the other, many times against our will. Judith Butler attempts to use trans people to prove her own theories (which, for the record, I agree with in many parts, but nevertheless acknowledge her position and tacit expropriation), while others attempt to show that trans people prove there is an innate “brain sex.” But many of us have complex understandings of ourselves that complicate or render useless such dichotomies, and instead we find ourselves used in vain attempts to resolve them.

Gestures of Exclusion

This is quite a critical one as it describes the essence of the data mine: the fact that colonised or marginalised peoples are sources of inert, voiceless objective data that is then free to be shaped according to the theorist’s will.

The exclusion in this case is of any theory generated by the colonised people. In this movement we find theorists speaking for those they study, interpreting their voices and more often theorising without them and taking it upon themselves to give meaning to their existence. Thus, in discussions of transgender people, trans thinkers are often excluded quite dramatically in favour of the theorists own efforts to define who and what trans people, what we mean, and their determination of how the raw data of our lives is best to be used.

When one comes across any number of theoretical texts that discuss trans people in ways we can readily discern as transphobic there is a notable black hole in any “works cited” page appended to such tracts. You do not find references to trans thinkers like Riki Wilchins, Susan Stryker, Sylvia Rivera, Julia Serano, Vivian Namaste, Dean Spade, Paisley Currah, Pat Califa, Stephen Whittle, Carol Riddell, Lou Sullivan, Jay Prosser, Tobi Hill Meyer, Emi Koyama, Joelle Ruby Ryan and more. If you do, they are mentioned very obliquely. This is especially pronounced with regards to trans women theorists who are oftentimes even more heavily excluded than their trans male counterparts, to say nothing of any thinkers who identify outside of those boundaries (Kate Bornstein is a rare exception).

That said, even citing lots of trans theorists positively is no inoculation against transphobia, as was evidenced by Kessler and McKenna’s Transgendering.

But in many troublesome texts, and more broadly in troublesome media as a whole, we find a nearly complete exclusion of trans intellectual product, and the theories we make about our own lives. Beyond the “big names” I’ve mentioned above, nearly all of whom meet academic standards of publication, are countless bloggers who think in very interesting ways about their lives that tend to undermine every cis narrative in the book (and they are quite literally in books) but such ideas never rate a mention in either theory or in the news.

Grand Erasure

If all of these movements seem to run together in certain ways, I imagine that is by design; they are all related to one another and often require one another in order to operate. For example, gestures of excluding trans theorists vastly facilitate grand erasure, which is the wholesale erasing or ignoring of trans lived experience in making social and gender theory. Kessler and McKenna’s assertion of the “deep conservatism” that begets a “relative acceptance of transsexualism” is one that only works if you erase the loud chorus of transsexual voices to the contrary, that can attest both to a lack of acceptance and to the often complex and diverse political views any of us could articulate.

The same occurs when Judith Lorber asserts that transsexual people’s “goal” is to be “feminine women and masculine men.” I hardly need to go into the legions being erased with that theoretical proclamation.

There has been an ironic strain in this piece so far, and it is the fact that I’m filching this four pronged paradigm from a book that is all about Western erasure of non-Western cultures, lives, and peoples, and I have not yet talked about the ultimate union of Connell’s postcolonial concern with my transgender one: Western erasure of gender diversity in non-Western cultures.

One of the better things Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna did was to call attention to how Western theorists imposed their own definitions on gender variant people they encountered in cultures they were colonising. They pointed out, for example, how two spirit Native American peoples were variously classified in a gender and sexuality schema that was resolutely European even though it had nothing to do with how these people knew their own lives and how their cultures saw them. This thus facilitated a universalising vision of gender, one we still live with, where a hegemonic Western gender ideal is now popularly believed to be culturally and temporally universal. There have always been masculine men and feminine women- and only that- in every culture, in every time period. Thus, our system of gender is “natural” and timeless.

You can only do this if you erase how countless people have historically and contemporaneously done gender in ways that differ from that schema, whether or not they are in the West.

There are countless people who are not considered in grand theories of gender, and people with distinctly non-Western genders also find their contributions erased, like the Menominee activist and poet Chrystos whose work was featured in the anthology This Bridge Called My Back. Even feminist theorists who, ostensibly, have much investment in any concepts that help them demonstrate that patriarchal gender assignment is constructed and malleable often do not seem to pay too much attention to how such genders immediately problematise universalist theories. After all, in considering them, Elizabeth Grosz’s philosophy becomes far more tenuous, does it not? Luce Irigaray and Nancy Chodorow’s visions of feminine universality or an essential womanhood also become deeply troubled.

To return to Robert Jensen as well, his repeated assertions that “trans” has “failed as a political project” constitute not only grand erasure of the successes I see around me each and every day, but its own kind of fantasy that both presupposes the failure and the political project itself; not all trans folk are political or share the same aims or conceptualise the political import of their gender in the same ways. It seems safe to assume that Jensen has regarded none of the above (I will return to Mr. Jensen at a later date as well).

Crashing the Dance Party

These four movements, phases in a lovely symphony that keeps the gender theory factory grinding forward in its ignorance of trans issues and trans politics, represent clearly visible obstacles; they have to be disrupted in order to make the canon more inclusive and more accurate. In so many ways, this has already happened. Next time, I’ll discuss some such theories.

But to be sure, a discretely trans feminist thought requires moving away from these tropes, and does also- in my view- require something else I have hitherto discussed in various ways. Redefining theory. What constitutes valid theory is still often fenced off in the black and white pages of officially printed, peer-reviewed journals still completely dominated by cis people who have either barely heard of us or theorise against us in incompetent ways.

In considering the wide ranging trans blogosphere it is clear that theoretical and intellectual production is- by necessity- occurring outside the academy or on its peripheries. Where trans people learn, come together, express themselves, and, yes, create theory is oftentimes nowhere near those places deemed most legitimate or official. The central problem that these four movements define is a problem of explicit exclusion, they are what arise from the exclusion of actual trans people, from the failure to take our experience into any consideration, and ultimately a desire to speak for us. Can cis people avoid these four tropes? Absolutely. But the other vital antidote is for countless trans people in the present day to be considered theorists in our own right, irrespective of our academic positions. We still live in a world, after all, where cis doctors and psychiatrists are presumed to know us better than we know ourselves.

In recent essays I have talked about how we must seize the means of intellectual production. The thing is, in a lot of ways we already have- it’s just that quite a few cis theorists have not quite deigned to notice.

2 thoughts on “A Social Symphony: The Four Movements of Transphobia in Theory

  1. frances November 18, 2010 / 12:23 pm

    I just fell over your blog from a comment at QT, and enjoying very much reading – And seeing ‘Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies”, she was fêted in Australia as ‘Our Judith Butler’, but when I read exactly that passage towards the end of the text … It does simplify having to talk about her though; after reading that I just say of her, ‘She wrote some pretty shitty stuff about trans people’.

  2. Louche December 23, 2010 / 5:22 pm

    “many of us have complex understandings of ourselves that complicate or render useless such dichotomies”
    Interested in hearing more about this. I read “Whipping Girl” and had the slight feeling she was trying to articulate the dichotomy of nature vs nurture more onto the nature side, which I didn’t see as entirely necessary… though it can be helpful in countering theory of the likes of Judith Butler. But she did ground it all, ultimately, in the concept of the experiential, which is awesome. Is that what you mean when you say “complicate or render useless such dichotomies”?

    Also, I don’t get the title of the second movement, because it sounds more like “reading from the edge (of dualism)” to me. I should probably read that book.

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